The light posts were swishing by one after another, from a diffused dimness to a grayed darkness. Still-asleep Dhaka was shrouded in an unforeseen eeriness. Inside a moving van, sitting crossed-hand in the middle seat, away from the windows, was I, subconsciously squeezing my two shoulder blades and arms inward, toward my chest to protect my most vital organ --- the 'life pump'.
Fear was lurking outside in the gray February fog!
Returning to Calgary, Canada, my country of residence since 1975, I was carrying with me memories of my motherland, Bangladesh. For three weeks, I was safe inside, but was in fear --- of being hit by a fire bomb --- while in a vehicle outside. The country was in the midst of continuous blockade and incessant hartals (strikes) since the second week of January 2015.
Inside the complimentary van, courtesy of Long Beach Suites Hotel, on way to Dhaka Shahjalal Airport on February 10, 2015, the air was edgy. The driver was quiet. I was quiet. I wished at one point the van had stealth technology to avoid detection by the dreaded petrol bomb throwers. Images of burn victims in Dhaka TV flashed through my mind --- their limbs and faces wrapped in white dressings in Dhaka Medical College Hospital --- and their loved ones' wails kept ringing in my ears. Fear of a sudden attack, already more frequent at night, was made even more likely by the early morning fog in February.
But it should not be. Not in February! Not in Bangladesh.
February in Bangladesh is the Language Month, a month to reflect on the sacrifices made and to reinforce the responsibility to protect the rich Bengali language and the Bengali culture. It is also a month to be united, regardless of politics or religion, as one nation, for the good of the nation.
In my Gulshan hotel room, I had been listening to patriotic songs played by several Dhaka TV channels. Ekushey (21st) February was only 11 days away from the day I was departing for Calgary. The uttering of the two emotive words in Ekushey February instantly evokes feelings of love for the mother tongue and motherland, and a bowing respect for the martyrs. Revered since 1999 as a UNESCO International Language Day, Ekushey February continues to draw hundreds of thousands of patriots every year to the Monument of Martyrs by Dhaka Medical College Hospital main entrance, all walking barefoot and singing one of the most heart-wrenching patriotic songs in the world: 'Aamar bhaier rokte ranagano Ekushey February, aami ki bhulitey paari.' (Reddened by my brothers' blood, Ekushey February; how can I forget thee.)
On that historic day in 1952, when, as a two-year old in rural Matlab, I was learning my first few spoken words in Bengali, sitting in the comfort of my mother's lap, lives of four brave young men were snatched away from their mothers by police bullets, while protesting against the dictatorial decision of making only Urdu the national language, snubbing Bengali, the language of all in East Pakistan and spoken by almost twice as many people as in West Pakistan then, in the late nineteen-forties and early fifties.
A tune I had heard in my Gulshan hotel room recently, and one of the many popular patriotic songs I used to sing in the early seventies, while a student at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), found its way to my vocal cord, silently, while seated in the van:
'Ek sagar rokter binimoye Banglar shwadhinota aanley jara; Aamra toomader bhulbona, aamra toomader bhulbona.' (In exchange for a sea of blood, those who have brought freedom to our land; we will forget you not, we will forget you not.)'
The country, freed by the valiance of many in 1971, was being held hostage by the cowardice of a few in 2015. In five weeks starting from the second week in January, more than 130 innocents, regardless of politics, religion, gender, age or kinship, had been burnt to death, and many more had been maimed, fighting for their lives in hospital beds. They were mostly poor people out in the streets, driving vehicles to earn money to feed their families, or people travelling in buses and CNGs (three wheeler running on natural gas) through continuous blockade and incessant hartals, sparing only the weekends, one of which is a Friday.
Despite the fear, my trip was filled with many sweet memories, made possible by the goodness in many.
Sitting inside the van, frames after frames of memories flashed through my mind that included: receiving a distinguished alumnus crest (plaque) from the Association of BUET Alumni (ABUETA), in recognition of professional achievements and for being the first person of Bangladeshi origin to have completed marathons in seven continents; receiving a crest from the staff of Engineering Resources International (ERI), Dhaka, for extra-ordinary achievements and inspiring young engineers; and receiving two crests (one on behalf of the founding co-donor of the Barua family) from BUET Chemical Engineering Alumni Association (ChEAA) and ChE Dept. for establishing the Subodh Barua-Tapan Chakrabarty Diversity (SBTC) Scholarship; giving a live TV interview; picnicking in my ancestral house yard with neighbourhood kids; enjoying Bengali dishes while listening to Tagore tunes in Kaustari Garden Restaurant in Gulshan; discussing safety and environmental issues with Dhaka entrepreneurs and a former ambassador in a dinner party at the residence of the CEO of ERI; and, through it all, witnessing the humanity and goodness in many, amidst the cruelty and madness in a few.
The wheels screeched. My upper body lunged forward. Two lead-footed armed men walked to the van, then not far from the passenger drop-off area. They might have been standing, in fear, on their feet all night outside. I was still sitting on the middle seat, away from the windows, trying to be as far away as possible from the first impact point of a bomb thrown from outside. After a quick scan through the window, the weary soldiers waived us off. The driver parked the van, got out, collected a trolley (cart), unloaded my luggage, and lowered his head in my direction in appreciation of a 500 Taka note I had gently pushed onto his palm, in appreciation of his service. He then embarked into the van and closed the door. Hurriedly, he drove away, disappearing into Dhaka's fog of uncertainty.
Once inside the safety of the almost-empty airport building at that hour, I felt for the van driver, who took a risk on his life and family to allow me return safely to my family. There were also others I already knew and came to know of over the past three weeks, many of whom would be soon driving or riding vans, buses, trains, cars, CNGs, rickshaws or motor launches in Dhaka or elsewhere in the country. They were trapped and targets of fire bombs in their own country, in a country, where humanity seemed to have taken a back seat to politics and hunger for power --- in some.
Three weeks earlier on January 20, 2015, I had landed on the same airport amidst considerable uncertainty and chaos in the country. Back in Calgary, my wife was very concerned, following the gory incidents on Internet and sending alarming emails after emails, pleading with me not to go out.
The absence of proportional outrage from within and outside the country was as puzzling as the abominable offense of killing the innocents --- by hurling fire bombs. 'Would it be any different if the upper strata of the society were among the victims?' I wondered. 'Would not death and injury by bullets be less painful than those by petrol bombs?' I also wondered, remembering the screams of a burn victim from childhood days in my village. 'To those who were left screaming in hospital beds feeling the unbearable pull of burnt skins, would it be any less painful knowing that someone from his or her party or one of her or his friends or relatives committed this carnage?' Hearing someone blaming others sounded like a cop-out from clear thinking of the issue. 'The issue here is a humanitarian one,' Dr Zaman, one close friend, had articulated to me passionately, sitting in his car on a Dhaka street on a hartal-free Saturday. Humanity should transcend politics.
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher and an inventor, writes from Calgary, Canada